Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552–1618)
Although a man of many accomplishments, Sir Walter Raleigh is best known as an explorer and the founder of Roanoke colony (1585), England’s first colonial settlement in the Americas. Though the venture failed, Raleigh was able to challenge Spain’s supremacy in the New World, and the settlers of Roanoke returned with valuable information that would later aid colonists in successfully establishing an English presence in Virginia.
Born in Devonshire, as a young man Raleigh attended Oriel College, Oxford, before joining the French Huguenot army in 1569. During the 1570s, he gained distinction as a poet and man of letters in London. In 1578 he joined his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in search of the Northwest Passage but ended in attacking Spanish holdings in the Americas. After Raleigh spent two years fighting the Irish (1580–81), Queen Elizabeth came to recognize him as an expert on Irish affairs, and he quickly rose in royal favor. Extravagant and arrogant, he was widely disliked at court but was knighted in 1584 and eventually rose to the position of captain of the queen’s guard.
After Gilbert’s death in 1583, Raleigh was given his charter to claim American lands in the name of the queen. She also grudgingly gave him a ship and a small sum of money. Though Raleigh remained in London to oversee the financing of the operation, his men made three unsuccessful attempts to establish Roanoke colony on the outer banks of the Carolinas. In and out of favor with Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh did gain permission to lead an expedition in 1595 to Guiana (modern Venezuela), where he believed he had found extensive deposits of gold, as he wrote in The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana . . . (1596). Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, he was convicted of treason. The new king, James I, stripped Raleigh of his titles and imprisoned him in the Tower of London for 13 years. He used the time to write his monumental The History of the World (1614). Raleigh finally convinced the cash-strapped king to release him in order to pursue English claims in Guiana. Raleigh’s final expedition (1617) produced no wealth, however, and he was beheaded for treason the following year.